In summary

California’s workplace safety officials are considering keeping in place the requirement to keep positive COVID cases out of the workplace, but throwing out the requirement to pay workers who are excluded from the workplace when sick.

By Stephen Knight, Special to CalMatters

Stephen Knight is the executive director of Worksafe, a nonprofit that advocates for safe and healthy workplaces.

During the first waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, California became the nation’s leader in protecting vulnerable workers by adopting emergency rules to prevent spread of COVID at work, and ensuring that workers who were infected could stay home to get well and prevent further spread. But just as we are facing the most contagious strains yet, a key element of these temporary rules is set to expire in a few short months. 

Incredibly, California’s workplace safety officials are considering keeping in place the requirement to keep positive COVID cases out of the workplace, but throwing out the requirement to pay workers excluded from the workplace when sick (“exclusion pay”). Protecting public health — and maintaining California’s national leadership — depend on the state making permanent these rules to protect workers. 

The economic analysis the state has relied upon to support this dangerous path fails to account for the costs borne by families, businesses and the public when this critical safety measure disappears. Reporting of symptoms and of close contacts will be severely reduced when workers understand that they or their coworkers will be put out of work.

If exclusion pay is allowed to expire, workplaces such as kitchens, warehouses and meatpacking plants will be the most affected. Low-wage and marginalized workers in particular again will be forced into Sophie’s choice: Miss a paycheck your family is counting on for rent and food, or go to work knowing you could spread the virus to more families. 

More than 10 million Californians have gotten sick from COVID, and 93,000 have died. Study after study is documenting the dramatic inequality in health outcomes — almost seven of every 10 COVID-19 deaths during the first year were among low-income adults, mostly essential workers of color. This disparity is shocking and unacceptable.

The COVID workplace rules undoubtedly prevented even worse outcomes. These commonsense measures include requiring a COVID-19 prevention program for every workplace and training employees on prevention. Workers are encouraged to bring COVID-19 hazards to an employer’s attention to be fixed. When face coverings are required by the state Department of Public Health, the employer must provide them.

Perhaps most importantly, if an employee gets COVID on the job, she is to stay home from work, her job is protected and she must be paid for the brief period until she is well and can safely return. 

Legislators are considering extending the state’s Supplemental Paid Sick Leave law, which is expiring in September, and they should extend this critical benefit. Still, this won’t take the place of exclusion pay, which is specific to work-related COVID cases and is crucial to preventing additional workplace exposures. Paid sick leave covers a broader set of reasons a person may need to be out of work, including child care and caring for a sick relative. Both are critical to our defenses against COVID-19 over the long term. 

During this third summer of living with COVID, many of us have stepped out of our secure bubbles, venturing into travel, social events and a sense of normalcy. The new waves of ultracontagious variants of the virus crashing on our state should caution us that this sense of normalcy is fragile. Only by adapting our workplace rules to our new, more dangerous and uncertain reality can we ensure California doesn’t slip back into wide-scale shutdowns and devastatingly unequal health effects. 

Nowhere is that more important than in California’s workplaces, where frontline and low-income workers remain the most vulnerable to exposure and illness.

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